Sarah Banks, Media Manager, Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum

During the interview we discussed several details of her career and job at the Smithsonian. She went for her undergraduate degree at Haverford and went for her master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester. She became an intern at the Smithsonian Institution, Museum of Natural History after graduate school. From there she grew in her position with experience. Her most recent position prior to the one she is in now landed her at the National Air and Space Museum. In her current position, she spends most of her time making sure that the museum’s media, items like interactives, audio visuals, and other technology-related material, is working properly and is meeting the standards that the museum, and the visitors, have set in place. While COVID has somewhat adversely affected evaluations from some visitors but has increased the number of accessibility users with the ability to test some different aspects of the project. The NASM, according to Sarah, is keeping with touch interactives for the time being until there is more information to indicate if there is a need to switch to touchless.

 Sarah discussed a little bit about where she felt her career has taken her and where it might take her in the future. She seems content in her current position but acknowledges that she does not know what her future career might look like. After discussing her career, we went on to discuss the different aspects of working at the Smithsonian and, in particular, NASM. Her response was not unexpected stating that the museum has days that are mundane that include paperwork and project work and more exciting days that include events like meeting astronauts and engineers. I had to express at the end of the interview that this interview was to me like meeting an astronaut was to her. I had also asked her what it was like creating digital content for the museum with the understanding when I was writing the questions that Media Manager meant something to do with social media. She discussed earlier in the interview how her role was less about social media and more of the digital content found within the museum. I also asked a clarifying question regarding which NASM site she worked for, she responded with say she works for both, Udvar-Hazy and DC, while also adding that there are other locations that are not public sites. She also added that during COVID she has worked at neither as all work has been completed from home but that she is looking forward to heading back.

 I followed this question up with a question about what some of the indicators are that a project is working and achieving its goals. She had a good response to this stating that responses from visitors were usually good indicators of the direction the project needs to go. This was followed by questions about some of her greatest successes and worst failures and their impact on her career. Her response to this was a bit inspiring as she said that she does not think of anything as a failure only a way to understand how to move forward. She said it much more gracefully than I did here, but the idea is still the same. She referenced a time when her and a colleague spent several hours printing out QR codes and laminating them to bring to a particular event for people to look up information and stories about various aircraft. The concept failed not because it was a bad concept but because the pilots who flew some of the aircraft were present at the event reducing the impact of the interactive because the more interesting source of information was the living, breathing, human being who had first-hand experience with each respective aircraft.

COVID has had some impacts on her work with some impacting how evaluations are conducted and the other her worksite. COVID has also affected how they are thinking about visitors and spaces within the museum. While it has not changed the content, they are addressing and has not yet changed the manner in which it is addressed, they have started thinking about what could change. A museum conference I had attended for work last summer had indicated that many museums had been moving towards touchless interactives. Sarah and her team are keeping with the touchable interactives until they hear otherwise, and she said she had not heard of any data recently supporting any changes but admitted she has not kept up with any possible changes either.

My second to last question revolved around the most enjoyable experience she has had while working at NASM or the Museum of Natural History and what she was able to learn from it. Her answer to this question was the project she is currently working on, and has been for a few years now, which is a remodel of one half of the DC site. While she stated that it is not always fun, and not necessarily enjoyable, it is certainly satisfying to see all of her work come to life.

My last question was more of a “fun” question that I ask some form of to everyone I interview, this time it was asking what the best and the worst aspects of working for the Smithsonian. She pointed out that the worst thing about working for the Smithsonian, which is with every government job, is the paperwork but the best thing is how interconnected the Smithsonian museums are that the people she worked with at the Museum of Natural History over eight years ago are still occasionally in meetings with her now while she works at the National Air and Space Museum.

I concluded the interview by thanking her for her time and allowing me to have this conversation with her about her work and her career.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah Freda says:

    Wow, I definitely would’ve been star-struck interviewing Sarah Banks! She has so much great insight, especially having worked at multiple national museums.

    One topic that stuck out to me was her comments on systemic racism and representation. Air and space, like many sciences, is a historically white, male-dominated field. As Banks says, “Apollo 11 astronauts were white mean…if we’re talking about them, it is what is is. How can we make sure we’re bringing in other stories from that time…?” Behind many great events and discoveries, there were other people involved who haven’t had their voices heard. One famous example from recent years is the movie Hidden Figures. Not only do these stories increase representation within the museum, but also gives a more complete narrative from different perspectives.

    Another opportunity that Banks shares is fictional characters, such as someone giving instructions in a video or interactive. This made me think of a documentary series, Inside Pixar. Script Supervisor Jessica Heidt noticed that in the original script for Cars 3, 90% of lines were voiced by male characters. To increase the gender balance, she thought, which supporting characters could be female? She ended up creating a program that analyzes scripts for gender balance. What if a similar concept was applied to exhibition scripts? How diverse is the exhibition’s content and what opportunities are there to add underrepresented voices?

    (Here’s a clip from the documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cxrSzmXnu6Y)

  2. Stephanie Ho says:

    Hi Kenny,

    The first thing I thought of as I was listening to the interview was the scale of the National Air and Space Museum! I used to work in a US Govt almost across the street from it, and so I remember how huge a space it is — the Udvar-Hazy center is also quite large. And, speaking of scale, it is interesting to note the four year timeline she noted for the “Transformation” to take place. Sarah added near the end that it often takes three to four years for an exhibit to come to life. I don’t have anything to say about that other than that is a really interesting thing to know. I appreciate her comment that this is more a vocation than just a job. I also appreciate her interest in Diversity and Inclusion, which are so important in cultural institutions like museums, which are crucial in interpreting and presenting history.

    I appreciate her comments about success and failure. First, with success, she says the internal factors of course are did the project come in on time and on budget? But then, she says there are other ways to measure success — such as, is the project working for the people involved? She adds that for a social media post, it doesn’t matter how many retweets it gets, if it is showing what the museum wants it to show. Meanwhile, on the topic of failure, I also really appreciated her comment that was something like, “if you learn from something that didn’t work, then it’s not a failure.” In other words, when something didn’t work, she describes it “as an experiment that didn’t produce the results we wanted, so we didn’t do it again.”

    Finally, I thought the discussion of whether there will be touch-heavy objects in a museum after Covid, and from what she said, I think the answer is yes. First, she pointed to the CDC/WHO guidance that touching surfaces is not as good of a way of transmitting Covid as everyone thought a year ago. Yay! That’s great news! At the same time, she added that there are a subset of visitors who may be blind or have other vision challenges, and therefore the ability to touch is much more important to them. These are things I hadn’t really thought about too much — not only is the museum thinking about Diversity and Inclusion for ethnic minorities and women, it’s also looking at making the museum more accessible and welcoming to people who have disabilities. And she gave a good reason for the need to have greater diversity, “when people walk into a museum, they should see someone who looks like them”

  3. Mary Trosin says:

    What an interesting interview and a cool position! I was not quite sure what Media Manager meant at first either, as a lot of digital and marketing positions can get put together and named similarly. It’s interesting how she talked about testing from home being more comfortable and that totally makes sense, I wonder if it is something other museums have tried and noticed stronger results with, it could become the new norm potentially. It was cool to hear the concept of failing forward being used as well when she described failing more as learning opportunities. Even if you don’t agree with the failing forward movement, failing is inevitable so you may as well take that attitude so you can get better. In relation to that criteria for success was discussed and this part of the interview really struck me, I hadn’t thought too much about how setting that criteria was just as important as the performance of a project itself. I find often in this course I have oh duh moments where after learning something it seems totally obvious, but I’m not sure how deeply I would have thought of that without having heard it. It has me considering how I will measure success in my project in an effective way.

  4. Kenny,

    This was a great interview! Out of all the interviews that I have read/listened to so far, I feel that I can relate to Banks’s background the best. I think she painted a candid and authentic picture of what the job was actually like throughout the interview. I appreciated how she approached the topic of failure. I will quote your transcript, “she does not think of anything as a failure, only a way to understand how to move forward.”

    I also thought that her perspective as a Smithsonian employee was exciting! I never thought that all the Smithsonian museums would be connected. Since there are so many museums within the Smithsonian, you would not think that they were interconnected. It was fascinating to hear that Banks can still connect with her former colleagues at the Museum of Natural History. I thoroughly enjoyed your conversation, great job!

  5. Deena Deutsch says:

    Wow Kenny! What an incredible interview!

    What struck me about your conversation with Sarah is how closely her strategy for the Air and Space Museum aligns with the methodolgies Dana offered us in developing our projects. This was particularly apparent in her ‘experimental’ approach to exhibition design — clearly, she is takes a deductive’ rather than ‘inductive’ in strategizing, and is confident enough to be ‘agile’ in response.

    In her discussion about prototype testing on a disabled sector, she was astute enough to realize that aan element of ‘distance’ generated a more authentic reaction, as it reduced stigmatization and awarness that one was beeing ‘tested.’ And, her candid discussion regarding the ‘failure’ of QR codes on an airplane exhibit only proved that she was confident enough to consider this a simple experiment– and one that allowed her to assess that people prefered human interaction with the pilots rather than technological engagement.

    Yet the comment I found most profound was her response to your question about her anticipated professional ‘trajectory’ at the beginning of her career. She replied that she could not have envisioned the type of digital applications she now uses routinely, and in hindsight, she observes that her career has been largely responsive to technological advances as they arose. These are words to the wise, as we embark on a field that is highly dynamic, and must be as agile as Banks, if we are to suceed.

  6. Kristina Zapfe says:

    So interesting to hear Sarah’s views on growing her decision-making skills and making adjustments in the fast-paced world of digital media. In many of our interviews I’m seeing a theme of being able to look at projects with constructive criticism and objectively discern why and how projects succeed and fail.

  7. Jennifer Kimberlin says:

    Thanks so much for this interview Kenny! Now I know why I never heard back from NASM for my interview request 😉 I was a volunteer there in the late 90’s in the Aeronautics department. The lack of diversity in aviation that she mentions is something that I have been dealing with since I left college – both as a woman pilot and from managing a Women’s Air and Space Museum. The NASM is my favorite museum, but when I visit I am always disappointed at the lack of representation. Like Sarah said, aviation and aerospace history was mostly made by white guys, so we mostly talk about white guys. And they have had exhibits on the Tuskegee Airmen and various female pilots of note, but their social media accounts are SO MUCH more inclusive. They recently had a story about the regiment of black women who delivered mail during WW2 which I had never heard of and it was a delight. Also one about a Japanese American who served in air combat in the Pacific. Social media and digital engagement is much more flexible than their physical museum space and I’m so glad they use it to celebrate diversity, even if the museum is mostly full of white guys (who in their defense really did do amazingly brave and brilliant things).

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